NBA

Despite small-ball trend, centers in thick of MVP discussion

By Sports Desk February 18, 2021

Battling both Father Time and his opponent, LeBron James remains a nearly unstoppable force in his 18th season. 

Averaging 25.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.9 assists, James is once again posting impressive numbers for the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers while playing every game so far this season.

With Los Angeles off to a 22-7 start, James appears to be the early favourite for MVP, which would put James in rarified air with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Michael Jordan as the only players to win the award at least five times. 

James, who won his first MVP award after the 2008-09 season, would also secure the record for the most time between MVP honours if he were to win again – a fitting tribute for a player who has broken the rules of basketball longevity.

As good as James has been this season, his lead in the race is narrow, and perhaps his three most deserving rivals come from the center position, despite the league's embrace of "small ball". 

Whether it be the "seven seconds or less" Phoenix Suns teams of the mid-2000s, the perimeter-fueled Golden State Warriors teams that won three titles or the Houston Rockets' dramatic downsizing last season that left 6ft 5in P.J. Tucker defending 7-footers, the NBA has been trending small for the better part of the last two decades.  

Shaquille O'Neal is the last true center to win MVP in 1999-00, although Tim Duncan played plenty of center during his 2001-02 and 2003-03 MVP campaigns. Some pundits have even forecasted the extinction of the true center as the league leans toward perimeter play and positional versatility.  

Yet three centers – Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers and Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz – are assembling compelling cases to be voted this season's MVP.  

Jokic is the focal point of the Nuggets' offense, on pace to dish out the most assists ever by a player 7 feet or taller at 8.6 per game. He is also averaging a team-high 27.4 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.57 steals.  

With Jokic on the court, the Nuggets score 117.2 points per 100 possessions – better than any team's full-season numbers – while shooting 49.9 percent from the field. When Jokic sits, Denver's offense operates with the efficiency of league-worst Cleveland, shoots just 42.5 percent, makes fewer 3-pointers and commits more turnovers.  

The Serbia native has helped the Nuggets navigate several absences due to COVID-19 protocols, but with a 15-13 start – eighth in the West – MVP voters are typically hesitant to vote for a team outside the top four in its conference. And while Jokic has improved on defense over the last few seasons, his weaknesses on that side of the floor are a fair argument against him being named more valuable than any other player.  

Embiid, on the other hand, is a two-time All-Defensive Team selection who is also turning in his best offensive season by a wide margin. His 29.7 points per game are on pace to be the most by a 7-footer since 1999-00 (Shaquille O'Neal, 29.7), while shooting career bests of 54 percent from the field and 39.7 percent from 3-point range.  

Embiid is also a tremendous free throw shooter, regardless of position, making 85.1 percent this season. He is even better in high-stakes situations, making 88.5 percent of his free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a 19-for-20 mark in the last three minutes of a game.  

With Embiid on the court, the Sixers have a net rating of +11.2 points per 100 possessions but are -5.7 per 100 possessions when he is off the court. Embiid is vital to his team, with the 76ers going 18-5 when he plays and 1-5 when he rests.  

While Embiid's time off the court shows just how valuable he is when he plays, it also may keep him from winning MVP this season. At his current workload, he is on pace to miss 15 of the Sixers' 72 games, more than 20 per cent. Embiid has played just under 748 minutes this season, while James and Jokic have played over 1,000 each.  

Gobert has played nearly 878 minutes for the Jazz, appearing in every game and leading Utah to a league-leading 24-5 record.

While his 14.2 points per game fail to measure up to his competitors' numbers, Gobert slots perfectly into the "best player on the best team" role that Giannis Antetokounmpo has occupied over the last two seasons and has added 13.4 rebounds and a career-high 2.69 blocks per game.  

Gobert is second in the league in plus-minus per 48 minutes at +15.3 (min. 500 minutes played), trailing only teammate Mike Conley at +18.9. 

The Jazz have surrounded Gobert with a roster mostly consisting of average or worse defensive players yet still rank third in the NBA, allowing 106 points per game.  

When Gobert is on the floor, Utah holds opponents to 101.6 points per 100 possession, fewer than any team's full-season numbers this year. And while Gobert ranks second in the NBA in blocked shots, his defensive impact extends beyond traditional numbers.  

Utah's opponents have attempted just 18.8 free throws per game – second fewest in the NBA – and Gobert's intimidating presence in the middle appears to be why. With Gobert on the court, Utah's opponents are attempting just 15.2 free throws per 100 possessions. When Gobert sits, that number balloons to 24.2.  

Ultimately, though, Gobert's limited offensive role makes him an outside candidate for MVP unless the Jazz finish the season on a historically great run.  

Gobert's skew toward defense, Jokic's skew toward offense and Embiid's limited availability could all open the door for LeBron – a worthy candidate in his own right – to take home his fifth MVP after this season.   

This trio of centers, however, has proven that there is still room for the big man to dominate in the modern NBA.  

Related items

  • Giroud savours return to goals as Milan fight back against Verona Giroud savours return to goals as Milan fight back against Verona

    Olivier Giroud was relieved to get back among the goals as Milan fought back to beat Hellas Verona 3-2 at San Siro on Saturday.

    The Rossoneri looked to be heading for a first defeat in 30 home Serie A meetings with Verona when Gianluca Caprari and Antonin Barak put them 2-0 up before half-time.

    Giroud headed in just before the hour mark to spark Milan's revival, with Franck Kessie levelling the scores from the penalty spot before a late decisive own goal from Koray Gunter.

    The result put Stefano Pioli's men top of the table ahead of Napoli's clash with Torino on Sunday.

    In scoring his third goal in his first two Serie A home games, Giroud matched a feat only previous reached by Oliver Bierhoff, Alexandre Pato, Mario Balotelli and Carlos Bacca since 1994-95.

    The former Arsenal and Chelsea striker, who had missed four of Milan's previous five games, admitted it had been a long time coming to be back on the scoresheet.

    "I've waited a long time for this moment. I missed the competition," Giroud, who last scored in the win over Cagliari in August, told DAZN.

    "In the first half, we didn't do well but the reaction was important. I don't feel 100 per cent yet but I am growing and I feel more free.

    "This victory is a joy. I can't wait to go and celebrate with my team-mates. In the first half, there was a lack of nastiness and quality. We could only do better in the second half, and that's what we did."

    Pioli was left delighted with the endeavour shown by his side in the second half as they now prepare for a key Champions League group game with Porto on Tuesday.

    "My team believe in what they do and put their soul into everything," he told DAZN.

    "We tried to play from the back but they were very aggressive in the first half. They took away our space and often left us with just the long ball. We were not very dynamic and we suffered.

    "The best thing about this group is to see everyone involved. The credit doesn't go to me, but it's the air we breathe. The boys put individuality aside to put themselves at the service of the team.

    "We should enjoy this game but prepare for Porto. We've recovered some players and we've lost some. The more rotations there are, the better we can do." 

  • Milan 3-2 Hellas Verona: Gunter own goal decisive as Rossoneri roar back Milan 3-2 Hellas Verona: Gunter own goal decisive as Rossoneri roar back

    Milan roared back from 2-0 down to beat Hellas Verona 3-2 on Saturday and claim top spot in the Serie A table.

    Unbeaten in their opening seven league games of the season, the Rossoneri were 2-0 down at the break against a side previously without an away win against them in 29 attempts.

    Gianluca Caprari and a penalty from Antonin Barak had Verona heading for an unlikely three points before the home side produced a second-half turnaround.

    After Olivier Giroud had headed home a third goal in three league games, Franck Kessie equalised from the penalty spot before Koray Gunter's own goal settled a gripping contest.

    Milan had not conceded two first-half goals in Serie A since last November – against these opponents – but they paid the price for a lifeless start to the contest.

    Ciprian Tatarusanu, in for the injured Mike Maignan, was powerless to keep out Caprari's precise finish seven minutes in after Miguel Veloso had kept Verona's attack alive.

    The lead was doubled 17 minutes later, Barak putting his penalty just out of Tatarusanu's reach after Alessio Romagnoli was judged to have fouled Nikola Kalinic as the former Milan forward darted in front of him to meet a cross.

    This Milan is a resilient side, though – they have only twice taken more points after the first eight matches of the season in the three-point era than they had before this game – and they got a lifeline just before the hour when Giroud nodded in Rafael Leao's expert cross from the left.

    A swift passing move saw Leao backheel the ball to Samu Castillejo, who was caught from behind by Marco Faraoni, allowing Kessie to dispatch a confident penalty and level the scores with 15 minutes left.

    Stefano Pioli introduced Zlatan Ibrahimovic off the bench, and the veteran striker may well have had a tap-in had Gunter not scuffed an attempted clearance beneath the legs of goalkeeper Lorenzo Montipo to give Milan the lead.


    What does it mean? Milan go top – and stay unbeaten

    Milan's comeback saw them leapfrog Napoli, who play Torino on Sunday, and go top of the table by a single point.

    With Inter having lost 3-1 at Lazio earlier, Pioli will be doubly pleased with the manner of their second-half performance as they capitalised on their rivals' first loss of the season.

    Verona are 13th, with eight points from eight games.

    Olivier takes centre stage

    Giroud has made a career out of being a penalty-box menace and it was no surprise to see him drag Milan back into the contest.

    He is the fifth Rossonero since 1994-95 to score three goals in his first two Serie A home games, after Oliver Bierhoff, Alexandre Pato, Mario Balotelli and Carlos Bacca.

    Maldini goes missing

    Daniel Maldini completed just seven passes before being hooked at half-time as Pioli rang the changes to good effect.

    By contrast, replacement Rade Krunic completed twice as many in the opposition half alone while creating four goalscoring chances.

    What's next?

    Milan head to Porto in the Champions League on Tuesday before facing Bologna away on October 23.

  • Mendy deserved a Ballon d'Or nomination, but Tuchel hopes 'it does not bother him' Mendy deserved a Ballon d'Or nomination, but Tuchel hopes 'it does not bother him'

    Edouard Mendy should have been included on the Ballon d'Or shortlist, but Thomas Tuchel hopes it does not bother the Chelsea goalkeeper. 

    Senegal international Mendy kept nine clean sheets during Chelsea's triumphant Champions League campaign last season – more than any other keeper in the competition. His save percentage of 91.2 also led the way among keepers to play at least six games in the 2020-21 edition of Europe's premier club competition. 

    While Chelsea team-mates Cesar Azpilicueta, Jorginho, N'Golo Kante and Mason Mount were named on the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d'Or, Mendy was left out. 

    But he produced a display worthy of such recognition during Chelsea's 1-0 victory over Brentford on Saturday, making six saves to earn his 20th clean sheet in his 38th Premier League start. In the competition's history, only Petr Cech (26), Pepe Reina (32), Alisson (36) and Roy Carroll (37) needed fewer starts to hit that milestone. 

    Tuchel believes Mendy should be in the running for the most coveted individual prize in men's football, but he is not overly concerned by his omission and does not think his keeper should be either. 

    Asked if Mendy should have made the shortlist, Tuchel told a news conference: "Yes, but I'm happy and it is more important that he performs like this than he is on any list. 

    "It should not, I hope it does not, bother him because it does not bother me too much and it seems like he is not influenced by that, which is a good thing. 

    "I think that we could be on that list as a whole team because we won that trophy as a team and if we have five names or six names, I feel that we won it as 21 guys and everybody played his role. That's how football works. 

    "Today we relied heavily on him again. He is the guy he is and everybody is so happy for him that he can help us. So everything is good." 

    Mendy's best saves came in the final 20 minutes as Chelsea clung on for maximum points after Ben Chilwell's thunderous strike on the stroke of half-time.

    Antonio Rudiger, who was absent for Chelsea after sustaining an injury while representing Germany during the international break, made his feelings clear about Mendy's Ballon d'Or snub on social media after the Blues' victory. 

    "Someone explain why he's not nominated for the Ballon d'Or," Rudiger tweeted. "What a performance... EDOUARD MENDY." 

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.